A film festival is a strange organism. Whilst it is largely identified by the level of glitz and glamour it can attract, a festival such as the London Film Festival (LFF) must serve a number of purposes for a number of different groups. For gossip hounds and autograph hunters, it’s about catching glimpses of the stars on the red carpet. For the stars themselves, the festival is equally about celebrating their art and drumming up publicity, creating a buzz around their product to attract awards and increasing the number of bottoms on seats. The film studios and distributors are usually of the same mind as far as revenues and awards are concerned. Then, there are the ardent film fans such as yours truly, for whom the thrills of the stars and the red carpet ultimately pale next to the sheer quality of (some of) the films that are on offer. Sometimes, the bluster that stars and studios alike create is justified.
To wit, the premiere of The Descendants catered for all sides. Arriving on the red carpet at the Odeon on Leicester Square sent a tingle of giddiness and admitted self-importance through the spine. Still, the crowds on the other side of the barricades didn’t care, because they were getting what they came for. Further up on the right-hand side, cameras were going off in a flurry as George Clooney signed autographs and proffered cheeky grins. To the left of me on the other side of the barrier, two well-dressed ladies watched with glee and declared, “Oh my God, he’s so gorgeous!” Even members of the same gender are forced to admit that this most desired of men has a great presence and aura to him. The wry smile and impenetrable fleet of bodyguards surrounding him probably help in preserving that aura. Further along the red carpet, Descendants director Alexander Payne was getting decidedly less attention but was still a noticeable presence, not least because of the suit he was wearing, which was a bravely bright shade of blue. Ticketholders were requested to enter the cinema quickly; we lowly mortals retreated from the utterly dazzling flash of press photographers as Clooney approached the head of the red carpet. The glamour was done, now down to business! Arriving at my seat to find complimentary dark chocolate and bottled water, the rest of the auditorium filled up quickly as patrons buzzed excitedly about their own experiences on the red carpet. Many people would be rendered jealous by tales from friends of seeing Clooney up close in days to come. The buzz that filled the screening room subsided as the festival’s artistic director Sandra Hebron took to the stage to introduce Payne. That blue-suit blinded us once more as Payne spoke of his growing confidence as a filmmaker; considering he directed About Schmidt and Sideways, it was a little amusing to think of Payne as someone who needed to grow in confidence as a director. He was joined onstage by Clooney, co-star Shailene Woodley and producer Jim Burke and then wished everyone would enjoy the film. Revolving aournd Clooney’s Matt King, The Descendants tells the tale of a man trying to reconnect with his family and sort his life whilst his wife’s in a terminal coma. It’s typical Payne: frequently very funny, often very touching and very, very good.
The gala performance of The Descendants is as big as premieres get. Other films enjoyed premieres, but on a smaller scale. Take the premiere of Take Shelter, for example. Just around the corner from the Odeon at Vue Leicester Square, Take Shelter’s premiere happened at the same time as that of Wild Bill, so they shared the red carpet. Onlookers enjoyed Jason Flemyng and Dexter Fletcher doing their red carpet thing before Take Shelter star Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, TV’s Boardwalk Empire) came down for photos and autographs. Fans were interspersed with curious passers-by and autograph hunters of both the amateur and professional kind (eBay must make a mint after the festival run). Though different in their box-office clout and drawing power, the likes of Clooney and Shannon are united by an appreciation of their fans’ interest and admiration, posing for as many photos and autographs as their bodyguards/repetitive strain injury will allow. Take Shelter sees Shannon on magnetic form as a man obsessed with preparing a storm shelter for an impending tempest that no-one believes him about and which his wife (Jessica Chastain) attributes to his family history of paranoid schizophrenia. In a Q&A afterwards, Shannon appears grateful, yet justly proud of his intense performance. The full screening room is drawn in by this self-effacing but intense actor. His other film in the festival, Return, is almost as engaging, though it seems to lack the interest that Take Shelter had. The screening I attended was only half-full, despite a Q&A by director Liza Johnson and lead actress Linda Cardellini (who gives a great performance as a soldier struggling to readjust to regular life). A red carpet opening might have helped, but a film can only be as good as the people who get behind it.
Clearly, the age of the star hasn’t ended yet. Look at Carnage, the latest by Roman Polanski. No stars in attendance, but the place was full! It helps that Carnage stars Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz (all Oscar winners) and John C. Reilly (Oscar nominee). Based on Yasmine Reza’s play, Carnage sees two couples meet after the son of one couple (Waltz and Winslet) hit the son of the other couple (Reilly and Foster) in a fight. It sounds heavy, but Carnage is a hilarious probe of the role of gender in society, and a farcical parody of modern parenting mores. Reilly had cornered the market for familial dysfunction at this festival, as he also starred in Lynne Ramsay’s devastating adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s acclaimed novel We Need To Talk About Kevin. Told from the point of view of Eva (Tilda Swinton, magnificent), WNTTAK is a bitter yet eloquent take on the nature-vs-nurture debate, charting the background of Eva’s son Kevin (Ezra Miller) committing a Columbine-style high school massacre. This year’s LFF seems to have a neat line in strangely disturbing dramas, as seen in the likes of WNTTAK and Martha Marcy May Marlene. MMMM sees Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, revelatory) dealing with her escape from a cult run by the charming-yet-slippery Patrick (Oscar nominee John Hawkes, eerie). An old hand like Polanski’s struggled to make Carnage feel less stagey, but MMMM is brought to vivid, creeping life by first time director Sean Durkin. At the Q&A for MMMM, Durkin seems a little shy around his new-found notoriety, whilst Olsen takes it all in her stride and Hawkes exudes an understated cool. It’s clear that the LFF is concerned with talent above experience, as it should be.
Beyond the dramas, LFF prides itself with a mix of genres. Horror (The Awakening), war (Matthieu Kassovitz’s Rebellion), romance (Like Crazy), mystery thriller (Headhunters, based on the Jo Nesbo novel) and even new silent film (The Artist) are represented. With a line-up of the local and the international, the old hands and the new kids, the LFF may be one festival in a line-up of many (Venice, Toronto and Sitges all happened in the last number of weeks), but it retains a class and commitment to quality that is evident to all who come to check out the stars, to soak up the atmosphere and to indulge in high-quality cinema.
The BFI London Film Festival runs until October 27th; festival award winners are announced the same day.